There was once a “little island” set on “the hill” that was full of tolerance despite a legacy of hate. It was called Steptoe and was once a vibrant community of single family dwellings, a two room school and two churches that served a predominately African-American, though inter mixed, community.
Now high end apartment complexes, vacant lots and land grabbed for St. Luke’s Hospital’s institutional growth have eviscerated it. Except for St. James Missionary Baptist Church the only remaining cultural institution of this once vital area, all other remnants are gone of this neighborhood that centered on
Steptoe Street (now West 43rd Terrace) and was west of Broadway and east of Summit (South West Trafficway).
This amazing multi-cultural community that also included recent immigrants from Mexico, Ireland and Sweden, had been an African-American enclave since before the Civil War. Penn School (segregated) was opened in 1868, to help teach the children of former “slaves”.
And just outside St. Luke’s AME Church (built in 1882) was a large old tree called the “hanging tree” that had once been the site of lynching’s. This painful memory in the landscape as well “slave” auctions were held outside the building that now houses Kelly’s Bar (formerly Boone’s Trading Post) was a reminder of the cruel old history of Westport.
Finding this information isn’t easy but there is a small file of newspaper clippings and one historical article written by JoeLouis Mattox at the Missouri Valley Room of the Kansas City Public Library.
Don’t try to find the history of “slavery” of Westport much less the amazing resilience of Steptoe on the Westport Historical Society website. That site by steps through omission the African-American experience of Westport.
The John Worrall House Museum site is nearly as bad for though there were over 3000 enslaved people in Jackson County in 1860 and Worrall “owned” several on his country estate (6115 Worrall Road) that website mentions slavery only in terms of the stately Kentucky style of the home.
Despite that John Wornall, who tried to be uncommitted during the Civil War had been a “slave catching” mounted regulator with a posse of locals before the war to stop the flow of the Underground Railroad to Kansas Territory. Other local sites do not only omit references to slavery; the William Clarke Quantrill Society calls the Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression” and glorifies the atrocities the black flagging bushwhackers and the lost cause of the Confederacy on their web site.
Whether by omission or by outright siding with the pro-slaving of the era this response to historical representation demonstrates a still current white supremacist set of attitudes. While the Westport Historical Society Site touts the benefits of the overland trails the story of border ruffianism and “slavery” was a huge part of that southern culture of the western Missouri town.
However the freed African-Americans of Steptoe in Westport made themselves known as a peaceful and tolerant community. That took pride in the upkeep of their small clapboard homes and used a local pharmacist for medical care, as they along with Jewish people were banned from St. Luke’s hospital in its early eras. The community also held a strong work ethic as many, including Penn School (Charlie Parker was a student there) graduates, went into the professions and many chauffeurs, cooks and maids who worked south of Steptoe in more affluent areas were also joined by railroad porters, teachers and other skilled workers.
One extremely well known local figure was Mary L. Waterous, principal of Penn School who in the afternoon walked the neighborhood engaging families and encouraging children. Unlike the dividing line of the Troost Wall, this African-American enclave existed in relative security as racial tension by local lore gleaned from former residents speaks a story of toleration and mutuality. This is a history worth knowing and the various historical societies who ignore it go entirely against this pronounced history of multi-cultural cooperation.